Happy Amerigo Vespucci Day

Portrait of Amerigo Vespucci.jpg

Today is the birthday of Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), an Italian navigator who explored the newly-discovered Americas, got his name attached to them, and arguably deserves his own holiday more than that other Italian navigator you might be thinking of.

Columbus Day has become highly controversial in recent years among the Native American community and others, and beyond his personal flaws (which are many), people argue that you can’t really discover a place where people already live. Now, as for the second point, the fact that the Europeans didn’t know there was a continent here in 1491 and this event being such an important part of world history, means it’s perfectly plausible to have a holiday for it if you want. But I agree that Columbus himself does not deserve it. Columbus wasn’t exactly a genocidal monster (if there was ever any plausible way to prevent smallpox from wiping out most of the Americas, I don’t see it), but he was most definitely a jerk. And more to the point, he certainly was not the paragon of perseverance in the face of ridicule that he’s been made out to be.

Some people suggest Leif Erikson Day (October 9) should replace Columbus Day. And while it’s true that Leif Erikson was the first (confirmed) European to reach America, the fact that the rest of Europe forgot all about it suggests that maybe he wasn’t notable enough to serve the role.

Amerigo Vespucci, however, presents a good case. He made four voyages to the Americas between 1497 and 1504, and he actually knew what he was doing. Vespucci was the first explorer to prove that the Americas were not East Asia, as Columbus said. Meanwhile Columbus insisted till the day he died, in the face of mounting evidence, that he’d discovered a new route to Asia. Vespucci was also the man who coined the phrase “the New World” (“Mundus Novus”) in a letter to Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1504. As a result when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller created a new world map in 1507, he didn’t name it Columbia after Columbus; he named it America after Amerigo.

Unfortunately, in the years following his Vespucci’s death, Columbus’s supporters disparaged him for undermining Columbus’s legacy. Later, in the 1700s, the United States appropriated Columbia as the female personification of itself (much like how we use Lady Liberty today), and Columbus became such a part of the American mythos that he got his own holiday—one that also became tied up with the desire of Italian-Americans to celebrate their heritage. Maybe it’s time for a change. (And Vespucci was also Italian.)

Just as a disclaimer, there is definitely dispute about the veracity of Vespucci’s exploits. However, at least one of his voyages, the third, is considered unassailable, and the America name dates from within his lifetime, so it’s a valid point. Besides, people think Columbus was the Only Sane Man who believed the world was round when in fact he was the clueless one*, so I’m not too worried about honest uncertainty here.

So happy Amerigo Vespucci Day to all!

* People knew the Earth was round and how large it was since Eratosthenes first measured it in 240 BC. Columbus believed due to various errors that it was about 25% smaller, and that what would have been an impossibly long voyage to Asia would have been plausible. Washington Irving invented the “flat Earth” myth around Columbus from whole cloth in his “biography” of the man in 1828.

Posted in Culture, History | Tagged , , , ,

Movie Review: Black Panther


Black Panther is being hyped as the movie of the year, and it’s certainly making an impact. It’s opening weekend was the fifth-largest of all time and it’s breaking lots of box office records. But how does this Africa-set superhero movie stack up? Pretty well, it turns out.

I have to say, I don’t think Black Panther was as transcendentally brilliant as the media hype says. It’s in the top tier of Marvel movies, for sure, and that puts it in a lot of good company. But at the same time, it puts it up against a lot of stiff competition if you want to rank them, especially since Marvel has really hit its stride in the past year and a half. I don’t think Black Panther stands out head and shoulders above its peers, and if I had to choose, I’d probably still put Avengers 1 on top. But it’s an excellent movie all the same.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Spoilers below.

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Falcon Heavy Blasts Off

SpaceX successfully completed the maiden flight of its new rocket, the Falcon Heavy, earlier today. This new heavy lifter can launch 63.8 metric tons to low Earth orbit, compared with 22.8 metric tons for the Falcon 9, making it officially the most powerful rocket in the world today—twice as powerful as the runner-up, the Delta IV Heavy. In doing so, it puts itself in the same club as the Saturn V, the Space Shuttle, and the Soviet space shuttle knock-off, Buran, as the only larger rockets to successfully launch.

And it launched a Tesla Roadster into space.


The Falcon Heavy is basically three Falcon 9’s strapped together, which as any rocketeer knows, means more than three times as many things that can go wrong. As it happens, the launch wasn’t completely successful. The first stage center core failed to land on the drone ship in the Atlantic due to an engine failure in a rare miss for the usually successful SpaceX. Nonetheless, they did successfully land the two boosters on adjacent launch pads within seconds of each other, which is pretty cool by itself.


What impressed me the most about this launch was how smooth it was. I remember seeing Space Shuttle launches back in the day, and they were an ordeal to sit through—stopping the countdown clock at 20 minutes and again at 9 minutes and ever more if anything went wrong. Maybe SpaceX will be slower when they actually start launching people (hopefully later this year), but at least they keep the clock running and let 20 minutes actually mean 20 minutes.

But it really goes further than that. Think about it. Elon Musk just launched a car into space on the most powerful rocket in the world just because he could. In doing so, SpaceX orchestrated its most complex launch yet including a twin booster landing where major governments use parachutes and fish them out of the ocean, and despite the failure of the third landing, they made it look easy.

NASA wants a new heavy lifter that’s twice as powerful as the Falcon Heavy. But I’ve been thinking this to myself since about 2011, and I’m going on record: SLS is going to be cancelled, and SpaceX (or maybe a competitor) will take over for it before it ever gets a crewed flight. I’m far more optimistic about SpaceX than I am about NASA (at least on the human spaceflight side), and I hope to see more milestones from them very soon.

Posted in Current events, Space exploration | Tagged , ,

Book Review: Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel


Waking Gods is the sequel to Sylvain Neuvel’s debut novel, Sleeping Giants, which I reviewed previously. In Sleeping Giants, a giant alien robot, Themis, is discovered buried in pieces all over the world. Predictably, the governments of the world and one shadowy conspiracy-type person cause a lot of trouble trying to use Themis to their own ends. Now, in Waking Gods, the aliens have noticed Themis, and everything just got much, much worse.

All in all, this is a pretty good book, though not as good as the first installment. If you read Sleeping Giants, though, I would definitely recommend it.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

I had the same problem with Waking Gods as I did with Sleeping Giants: namely, that I disagreed with the direction Mr. Neuvel took the story. This isn’t as big a criticism as it sounds because both books were very entertaining. However, where Sleeping Giants resolves these plot threads so brilliantly at the end that I took back all of my criticisms of the book, the final resolution of Waking Gods, while equally complete, feels uncomfortable and unsatisfying to me.

I don’t really want to give away the ending because I still think this is a very good book and worth reading, especially after reading the first one. It’s just that the plot twists were weirder and less believable this time around, and I had a problem with the aliens at the end that left a sour taste in my mouth. But even with that, it’s not remotely enough to turn me off the series. Book 3, Only Human, ships in May, and I am still excited to read it, so I hope you’ll check it out.

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Podcast Review: We’ve Got Worm and We’ve Got Ward

Alexandria Lunchbox by lonsheep

We’ve Got Worm cover art by lonsheep.

I have a second review to make about Wildbow’s Worm and Ward, but this one isn’t about the story. This is about a podcast about the story. It’s called We’ve Got Worm, followed, of course, by We’ve Got Ward, and it’s produced by Scott Daly and Matt Freeman of The Daly Planet, a more general podcast where they review and analyze lots of books, TV shows, movies, and more. Worm is so big that they decided it needed its own podcast, and thus, We’ve Got Worm was born.

You can listen to We’ve Got Worm on the Daly Planet’s website, but I find it easier to listen on YouTube. The original podcast involved Scott, a newcomer to Worm reading one Arc per week and then talking about it with Matt, a “Worm expert” on the show. Now that Ward has started, both Scott and Matt are reading in real time, with shorter episodes on the two or three chapters Wildbow releases each week. I’d recommend you start at the beginning, though. The podcast is a great companion to go along with your reading of Worm whether it’s your first time or a reread.

I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts, but this is one of the best I’ve seen, and better than other review-type podcasts I’ve listened to. This is not a fluff podcast just to praise Wildbow, despite the number of times Scott says, “I love this!” Nor is it a boring, beat-by-beat summary of the story like some I’ve seen. This is serious literary analysis, but at the same time, this isn’t your high school English class. In fact, if high school English class were more like We’ve Got Worm, the world would be a slightly, but measurably better place.

I think the highest praise I can give this podcast is that I really enjoyed it, and it’s made me a better writer. The analysis goes down to the line-by-line level, showing how a single sentence can do a huge amount of work at characterization, among other things. It goes up to the overall structural level, exploring the whole scope of the story and the vastness of Wildbow’s worldbuilding. And it has everything in between: proper use of the Rule of Three, how to build up tension and set up reveals in a satisfying way, how the failure to communicate or withholding of information can be done well, and when it isn’t, and so on. To keep with the English class comparison, instead of the shallow “themes” and “symbols” you get in easy books like Lord of the Flies (and nothing against Lord of the Flies), this is a much deeper look into dramatic parallels, character arcs, psychology, sociology, “writing the other” both with other humans and non-human perspectives, and much more.

And above all it’s a lot of fun. My rating: 5 out of 5.

Posted in Web Review | Tagged , , , , ,

Web Serial Review: Worm and Ward

Skitter by NeoWorm

Fear Skitter. Credit to NeoWorm.

Okay, it’s taken me a while to get around to this one. I just had a lot of other posts I wanted to get through, and it’s hard to keep up sometimes. I’m going to try to do this spoiler-free because you really need to experience this for yourself.

Worm is an epic web serial written by Wildbow, also known as John C. McCrae, set in a world of superheroes and supervillains, known as “parahumans.” It’s basically a series of 31 short web novels, or “Arcs,” telling one massive story. It’s hard to get your arms around everything Worm entails. The main character is Taylor Hebert, a fifteen-year-old girl who wants to be a superhero despite her not very publicity-friendly power of controlling bugs. On her first night, she gets mistaken for a supervillain, and things spiral out of control from there.

Worm was completed in 2013, and it now has a sequel, Ward, which is currently in progress. And above all, it’s incredibly well-written. Definitely worth reading, at least through Arc 3, if nothing else.

My rating: 5 out of 5, easy.

Continue reading

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A Study in Parallel Universes: the Weakless Universe

No weak force.

I haven’t written about my work much on this blog. I’ve mostly kept to interesting science stories in the news or the community, but since this is a website for science as well as science fiction, I wanted to talk about a new paper that I have written with fellow physicists Evan Grohs and Fred Adams here at the University of Michigan, exploring the idea of a “weakless universe”—a universe without the weak nuclear force. It has been accepted for publication by Physical Review D and is available to the public to read here.

Now, the first question you might be asking is, why would we study parallel universes? To be sure, this is a purely theoretical study of something that, even if it existed, would probably never be observable. However, there are good reasons for this. First, just as you will often learn more about your native tongue by studying a foreign language, thinking about what other universes might be like helps us better understand our own. And second, it addresses a small part of a longstanding philosophical question in physics: does the universe have to look the way it does in order for life to exist?

The “weakless universe” is a universe without the weak nuclear force (also called the “weak force”), one of the four fundamental forces of nature. Usually, we say that the weak force causes radioactive decay, but there’s more to it than that. The weak force drives two very important cosmic processes: the fusion of hydrogen to helium in the sun, and the explosion of supernovae, which distribute heavy elements across the universe. If you remove the weak force, it seems that there would be no stars, and even if there were stars, the universe wouldn’t have the necessary elements to produce life. Or would it?

The idea of a weakless universe was first studied by a team of particle physicists in Harnik, Kribs, & Perez (2006), who suggested that such a universe could support life, producing the necessary elements by different processes. The idea enjoyed a bit of popular attention in a 2009 Scientific American article, but their analysis was incomplete and didn’t dig deep into the mechanics of how stars would operate without a weak force. We decided to follow up on their work to create a more complete picture of such a universe, and we found that it would look different in some key ways, but it could still support life as we know it.

To start off, without the weak force, neutrons, which normally decay into protons on their own, are stable. Many radioactive isotopes—all those that decay by beta decay like carbon-14 and strontium-90, are also stable (but not uranium and plutonium, which decay by alpha decay). Because of this, instead of the Big Bang producing many more protons than neutrons, as in our universe, the weakless universe produces them in roughly equal numbers. By itself, this would result in nearly all the matter in the universe fusing into helium in the Big Bang, which is not good for life.

The solution is to change one other thing: the density of the universe—or more specifically, η (pronounced “eta”), the density of protons and neutrons in the universe. If there are fewer particles around, they can avoid colliding and fusing together in the early universe. Galaxies are big, so there’s still plenty of gas around to form stars, but it’s not all helium.

The next problem is that the weakless universe has a bunch of free protons and free neutrons flying around. A proton and a neutron can fuse together into deuterium, and because they don’t electrically repel each other, they don’t need a hot star to do it. It can happen in the cold of space. But space is also pretty empty. The question is how dense does this cosmic gas of protons and neutrons need to be to fuse into deuterium quickly. That’s something we can calculate, and it turns out to be the density of a forming protostar. Stars will be going through nuclear fusion before they form.

This early fusion doesn’t stop star formation because fusing protons and neutrons into deuterium only produces a little bit of energy, but it does mean that stars will be made almost entirely out of deuterium. In fact, this solves one of our original problems: the hydrogen fusion in the Sun doesn’t work without the weak force, but deuterium fusion does. It uses the strong force.

Deuterium burns much faster than normal hydrogen, and at a lower temperature. Deuterium stars in a weakless universe will switch on before they fully collapse, when they are still big and red. A star with the mass of the Sun in a weakless universe would look a lot like a red giant, and it would last about as long as a red giant—only a few hundred million years, too short for life to develop as it did on Earth.

However, deuterium stars can also burn if they are smaller than stars in our universe, and smaller stars live longer. In our paper, we created a model of a “Weakless Sun”, which is only 5.6% the mass of our Sun (stars in our universe have to be at least 8% the mass of the Sun) and lives for close to 10 billion years. The Weakless Sun would look like a red dwarf, but brighter—about as bright as a K8 or K9 star in our universe, which puts it out of that worrisome M-dwarf territory where habitable planets would be tidally locked.

So we have long-lived stars. What about planets and life? Our other problem is that core-collapse supernovae don’t work, and those are the main source of oxygen and several other important elements in our universe. Luckily, there are two other processes that produce elements heavier than helium that do work: Type Ia supernovae, and red giant winds.

Type Ia supernovae are caused by exploding white dwarfs, which will exist in a weakless universe, are the main source of iron. They undergo nuclear fusion using the strong force, producing lots of iron and nickel, and also silicon, sulfur, and calcium, among others. Meanwhile, red giant stellar winds blow huge amounts of gas out into space, including the elements produced in their cores (known as “dredge-up”). Helium burning in red giants produces mostly carbon, but also some oxygen—not as much as our universe, but some.

Now, we’ve got iron and silicon to form planets; and we also have carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, the minimum elements needed to form life as we know it. We’re short on nitrogen; there’s some around, but a lot less than in our universe, which complicates matters, but it doesn’t forbid life from occurring. It might just have to evolve differently. The bottom line is that life would be harder to form in a weakless universe, but contrary to our initial guess, it’s still possible, and I think that’s pretty cool. As Fred Adams would say, it’s a lot harder than we think to “break the universe”, and that includes even getting rid of one of the fundamental forces.

Posted in Science | Tagged , , ,